Stephen Sheehi, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910
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(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 220 pp.
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Stephen Sheehi’s The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910 is a well-researched and welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship on the history of indigenous photography in the Middle East generally and in the Ottoman Arab world particularly. Unhooking his argument from the Orientalist–not Orientalist binary that has defined much of the study in this area, the author sets the practice, discourse, and products of local photography squarely in the context of Ottoman and Arab ideologies of modernity. In doing so, the author succeeds in effecting a profound shift in how we understand the work of photography in this time and place.
The book has an elegant structure, divided into two sections of four chapters apiece, each prefaced by an introduction and concluded with an epilogue. In the first section, entitled “Histories and Practice,” the author lays out the histories and frameworks of indigenista photography and portraiture (Sheehi borrows the term “indigenista photography” from Deborah Poole’s groundbreaking Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World  and uses it throughout the book); in part two, “Case Studies and Theory,” he moves on to the theoretical unpacking of those histories and frameworks (xxxviii).
The author begins with an overview of Ottoman photography, centering on the work of the Istanbul photographers Abdullah Frères and setting out relationships between their portraiture and current ideologies of reform and modernization (Osmanlılık), and describes the portrait as the “material instantiation of Osmanlılık, and nahdah [Arab Renaissance] ideology” (26). The second chapter examines the practice of the Beirut photographer Jurji Saboungi and presents two key theoretical underpinnings of the book, the imago and the image-screen of Jacques Lacan. The carte de visite, the photographic format that is at the heart of the book, is the subject of the third chapter, discussed here as an object with social currency and a social role (55). This chapter is very effective in communicating the complexities and variety of the studio contexts, business structures, and networks of circulation behind the apparently simple and inexpensive portrait format. The fourth chapter consists of a body of material in support of the author’s argument: words of the Arab writers whose subject is photography, both as a practice and as an aspect of their own modernity. Mostly unpublished until now, this material is riveting for what it tells us about how photography was understood in the Arab Ottoman world.
The second half of book lays out four case studies to test the theoretical framework established in the first section. These comprise an examination of unpublished photo albums together with the work of two Jerusalem photo studios (chapter 5); how the portrait photograph worked as a stabilizing object in the context of modernity (chapter 6); the latent content and manifest surface of the portrait, using, among others, those of Midhat Pasha as examples (chapter 7); and the writings and images of the first Egyptian officials to photograph the Hajj (chapter 8). This last chapter is particularly valuable as an extended discussion of the narratives around the photographic image in the context of Islam as conveyed in a series of fatwas and other writing, and an analysis of portraits of figures from the Hijaz.
The range of source material deployed throughout the book is impressive. Meticulously footnoted, the sources range from writings on photo history and theory to ephemeral journals in Arabic from the late nineteenth century. The secondary scholarship on the photo history of the Middle East is substantial, and while one could quibble about some important omissions (Bahattin Öztuncay’s two-volume work, The Photographers of Constantinople, and Erin Hyde Nolan’s work on the various official Ottoman album projects, for example), the book brings together foundational work as well as material from the region that had not been accessible to non-Arabic speakers. One rather surprising omission is any sustained reference to the large art historical bibliography on the portrait, often cited by photo historians in their work on the subject. Also, given the great wealth of sources, a bibliography would have been welcome.
The structure of the book is enhanced by its generous trim size and clean design. The seventy-six illustrations are adequate to make the author’s arguments, and about one third of them are reproduced at a size that provides easy viewing of the central figures. Many of the remaining images are quite small and difficult to read and often poorly reproduced, no doubt because the originals are not in good condition. In addition, whereas some objects are reproduced with their borders intact—often when there are inscriptions or other information to which the author is referring—in most cases, the photographs are cropped, which eliminates potentially useful details that readers may have found of interest even if they were not relevant to the author’s text. Overall, though, considering the challenges of working with this body of material, most of which was inexpensive at the time of production and has since then suffered through difficult storage conditions, the images are reasonably well displayed and a fine addition to the corpus of published photographs from the region.
The book has a great deal to recommend it, but there are a few aspects of the text that are challenging. The author employs phrases and descriptors that are not standard vocabulary for this subject and, in the absence of specific definitions, are confusing. A few examples: How does the term “genetic patterns” transfer from its original context in literary theory to photography, and what does it mean here? Certain photography studios are described as “blue-chip”: Is this in reference to their popularity in the day, to the amount of information that has come down to us about these businesses as opposed to others, is it an assessment of the quality of the photographs produced by the studio or something else altogether? What does it mean to refer to lost journals as the “white noise” around photography (86)? Using this term seems to undervalue what I see as a major contribution of this volume, which is Sheehi’s laborious sifting through archives and libraries to collect a body of contemporary writing in Arabic about photography that is essential to advance his arguments and bringing this material to the attention of a wide audience. In addition, the author’s frequent use of quotation marks is distracting, at least to this reader. Their purpose is not clear and they are not used consistently.
The subtitle of this book is “A Social History of Portrait Photography,” and that it is very successful. Using portrait photography as his vehicle, the author has done an outstanding job of presenting a complex and multilayered account of how the inhabitants of the Ottoman Arab world were addressing the challenges of their times. His breadth of knowledge and control of a range of theory and source materials is impressive. The volume makes significant contributions to the photo history of the region by opening up access to photographers and primary sources previously unpublished in English. Although many of the author’s assertions about the role of portrait photography (and photography more generally) in this period echo those made by others, he brings them together in a well-articulated way that will certainly have a significant impact on future scholarship.
Stephen Sheehi has published works in which he engages with visual material, and in this book, when the text allows it, his analysis of images is thoughtful and convincing. But I found the focus on the portrait as a means of instantiating ideologies flattening to the images themselves: as a result, the photographers and sitters had little subjectivity in their own right. In the end, aspects of the portraits that could have emerged through a more detailed analysis of individual themes (pose, gaze, dress, for example) and advanced the understanding of the admittedly rather formulaic images were set aside.
Coming to this book as an art historian enmeshed in the photo history of the late Ottoman Empire, I was often reading against the grain. The author was intent on advancing his argument via particular theories, but I wanted to know more about the circumstances of production or the details of the photographer who produced an image. I found a number of places where my interpretation of the image differed sharply from that of the author. At times a slightly frustrating experience, it was also extremely productive. Looking at the most ubiquitous category of photographs that survive from the local encounter with photography, cartes de visite, and other forms of personal portraiture from a perspective so different from my own was illuminating and gave me avenues of thought for my own work that are fresh and exciting. The Arab Imago has moved our field forward in important ways.
Nancy Micklewright is Head of Public and Scholarly Engagement at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Asian art museums of the Smithsonian. A specialist in the history of Islamic art and photo history, she is the author of A Victorian Traveler in the Middle East: The Photography and Travel Writing of Annie Lady Brassey (2003) and the editor, with Reina Lewis, of Gender, Modernity and Liberty: Middle Eastern and Western Women’s Writings: A Critical Sourcebook (2006), as well as numerous articles on photo history.